As Parker sat and listened to their mother argue with the paramedics and the police, they couldn’t suppress a little smile. It wasn’t their job to figure everything out anymore, their mom was there.
“Who would have ever thought your mom could take on the world?” Omar whispered to them and they both laughed.
“You can NOT take Parker!” Their mom said for the hundredth time gripping the stretcher even more firmly between her small hands. “The last time you took them, they didn’t come back.” The last few words were barely a choked whisper and tears started to leak down their mother’s cheeks.
“Hey, I came back,” Parker said, reaching towards their mom’s hand. “It was just a little indirect.”
Omar and one of the paramedics laughed, the rest looked at them with a mixture of pity and incomprehension. “Parker,” their mom said with warning in her voice. To Parker’s amazement, the sound of their mom verging on giving them crap was about the best sound in the world. It was normal. Normal from a time that now seemed like a dream. A dream that was maybe going to be there’s again.
Parker didn’t love the idea of going to the hospital, but they also didn’t love the idea of staying on the side of the road with their leg in agony, and their head pounding. “I know you want to fix this mom,” Parker’s voice was quiet but steady, “the thing is, you can’t fix my broken leg and I’m sure the paramedics are right about me being dehydrated. You have no idea how hard it is to get a cup of water when you don’t have a tap.” No one laughed at their joke this time and their mom was looking at them as though they had sprouted an extra head, she was probably wondering what had happened to her shy and passive child. “This cop’s idea is probably the best bargain we’re going to get. Let her drive you to the hospital following along behind the ambulance. Take the paravirus test at the hospital and when you’re clear in a couple hours, you can come and camp in my room.”
“What if I’m not cleared?” Their mom’s voice wasn’t loud, but it had an out of control quality that they’d never heard before. “What if when I get in, you’re not there? I can’t do it again Parker, I can’t let you go.”
There was a heavy silence and Parker felt as though it was suddenly hard to breathe. They were so exhausted and in so much pain and they just wanted to believe that it was all over. But, could they really trust that they would end up at the hospital in proper care? When they had been called out of class nearly a year ago, they had no reason to believe that we were going to be imprisoned and used like a lab rat. What guarantee did they really have now?
“Wouldn’t it be harder for them to kidnap me now that it’s all over the news?” Omar had told them that it was a big story all over the internet. The police had raided the house in the Gates where they’d been kept. He had even seen a picture of Parker’s cell. Omar didn’t totally understand the details, but it seemed that instead of being a super spreader, Parker actually had super immunity. They didn’t know if Omar had gotten this right, but he had said that Parker was immune to all viruses. This was why they were kept in prison by the Health Authority. Instead of trying to protect the world from Parker like they’d said, they were trying to figure out how to duplicate their immunity. There were lots of answers that Omar didn’t have and it all sounded far fetched and ridiculous. But, so did most of the last year of their life.
“Terri-Lyn,” Omar’s mom stepped forward into Parker’s line of sight and put her arms around Omar who was now taller than her. “What if Omar gives Parker his phone and you and Parker can stay connected all the way until you’re able to get in to see them?”
Their mom didn’t even look up, but continued to look only at Parker, squeezing their hand so hard that it hurt.
“We will follow the ambulance and not let it out of our sight.” The police officer put a hand on their mother’s arm and Parker heard her choke back a little sob.
“We really should wait for Arthur.” Parker felt their heart leap a little at the mention of their dad’s name. Omar had told them that their dad was leading a part of the search that was happening on the other side of the Provencher bridge. At every rustle of footsteps, Parker had hoped he would appear. They felt like the pieces of their life were slowly being put back together and they needed their dad to make it complete.
“We really need to get this kid to the hospital.” one of the paramedics said as Parker winced at the pain in their leg.
“We’ll wait for Arthur and send him along,” Omar’s mom said checking her phone. “There’s a big accident on the bridge and he can’t get through.”
Finally, reluctantly, his mom nodded and it was as if she had set the world back in motion. Omar slipped his phone into Parker’s hand as the paramedics started to load Parker into the ambulance. The media who had been out of Parker’s line of vision started to snap pictures and ask questions and the police officer tried to steer their mom off towards the cop car. Parker finally closed their eyes. They didn’t want to think or wonder what would happen anymore. If these paramedics were somehow working for the Authority then Parker had lost because they couldn’t run anymore. They couldn’t even have stood up if their life had depended upon it.
“Dad?” Parker tried to shake the sleep out of their head as they peered at the man sitting beside them reading a book. Was this really their dad? Their mom had mentioned when they were talking on the phone that he’d lost some weight, but that might have been the understatement of a lifetime.
“Parker!” The smile was the same, but his once round face was now narrow and his brown hair was liberally streaked with gray.
“What happened to you? Where’s mom?”
“Happened to me?” he looked puzzled for a moment, “I just had a little paravirus weight loss program.” He shrugged almost apologetically and went on. “With the paravirus rules, only one of us can be here at a time. We’ve been taking turns, but you’ve been sleeping for awhile.” Parker nodded remembering that the doctor had given them something to take the edge off of the pain when she had set their leg. It was the last thing they remembered.
“Parker, it’s just so good to…” To Parker’s complete surprise, their dad’s cheerful smile crumbled away and he started to cry. “I’m so sorry Parker. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry I believed them. I just didn’t know.”
“This wasn’t your fault!”
Their dad shook his head sadly, “we didn’t keep you safe.” he said with a sob, “your mother never believed them when they said you’d died. She kept working to try to find answers and I kept telling her you were gone and that she had to let you go.”
“You couldn’t have known.” Parker said not wanting to even think about what it was like for their parents when they were gone. They shuddered as their mind rejected the idea of their dad and mom fighting about whether they were alive or dead. It was impossible to blame their dad for believing that they were dead. Nobody expects to have an organization in charge of health fake their child’s death. At the same time, where would they be if their mom had believed that they were gone? Just the idea made them feel queasy and they closed their eyes again. “We can’t all have mom’s super powers.”
“I guess I’m the only one in the family without super powers,” their dad said softly.
Parker frowned and forced their eyes back open as their mind flooded with a torrent of questions “Dad, what happened? Are Dakota and Esme ok? Did they find Tiger? How did they know where I was? What happened to the people from the Authority who were keeping me? Why me?”
“Well,” their father answered, studying the wall as though the answers were written there, “Your mom never had given up on you still being alive. She just didn’t believe their story about them needing to cremate your body because you were a super spreader. She went to the police over and over again, and managed to find other parents who had had their kids taken by the Authority. Most of those parents had gotten their child’s body back.” Their dad choked up again and fell silent.
Parker thought of the other kids they had heard, the ones who had died cold and alone in the Authority’s prison. “Why did they kill those kids?”
“From what we know, they weren’t trying to kill anyone.” Anger now shone in their father’s eyes and his voice was steady and filled with disgust. “They just didn’t care enough to keep them alive. They were doing experiments to try to understand how your immune systems had evolved to develop viral immunity. I guess the kids who didn’t make it didn’t have the same level of super immunity as you do.” Parker didn’t totally understand, but wanted to hear more of the story.
“What about Dakota, Esme and Tiger?” Parker pressed almost breathlessly. “Are they alright.”
Their dad hesitated and then reached out and took their hand and their heart dropped down into their stomach. “Esme and Dakota are alright.” he said raising his eyes to meet Parker’s, “They had a bit of a rough time and some damage was done to their house, but they’re totally ok now.”
“And Tiger?” Parker’s mouth was dry and they could barely swallow.
Their dad let out a long sad sigh before answering. “The Authority was taking homeless people off the street and using them to test out some of their theories about how to cause the kind of shift in the adult immune system that they were seeing in some of you kids.” Taking another deep breath he went on. “The tests weren’t very successful. I’m so sorry Parker, but
Tiger was already gone by the time they raided the building.”
“Gone?” Parker asked, holding out hope that their dad just meant he was back out on the street somewhere. Maybe he figured out how to escape just like Parker had.
“He died Parker.”
The words hit Parker like a battle ax. “No.” Parker said, shaking their head. “No.” They said a little louder. “You’re wrong! Tiger was strong. He can’t be dead. He can’t be.”
Their dad wrapped them in his arms and they cried until they were empty. Tiger was gone forever. None of the rest of the story felt like it mattered. They hadn’t saved the other kids, they hadn’t saved Tiger, they hadn’t saved the other countless homeless people who must have died as well.
“I’m sorry that I never got to meet Tiger,” their dad said softly, his voice thick with emotion, “I would have liked to thank him, Dakota told us about how he had kept you safe.”
“Tiger kept me alive and I just let him die.” The words hurt to say out loud.
“You didn’t let him die. Parker, none of this is your fault!” Their dad lifted their face until they were looking eye to eye. “This was done by a few sick and greedy people who were high up in the Authority and wanted to use your natural immunity as a way to get rich off of this global pandemic. Parker, they were just getting ready to bring in another group of kids from some of the northern communities. Who knows how many people you saved. People who will not have to go through what we went through. Tiger would have been proud of you.”
Parker closed their eyes and leaned their head back. They wondered if Jenni would hear that Tiger had died. They wondered if they would ever get to meet her and tell her that Tiger had loved her so much. That Tiger had saved them because they’d reminded him a little of her. With those thoughts in mind, they drifted back off to sleep in the safety of their dad’s arms.